Last spring, when the Democratic primary was still somewhat in doubt, and people worried about the “bruising” primary season damaging the likely standard bearer in the general election, I suggested that the center/center-left/left coalition needed to hear out the debate between Sanders and Clinton. I argued that this was sound from the perspective of participatory politics but also, and more importantly, because the largely positive and issue-oriented debate was allowing all of us who find ourselves within the orbit of this coalition to articulate the differences that we have. Principal among these differences, I argued then, were those related to how our engagement in electoral politics should best navigate the dilemma that faces anyone who enters politics. This dilemma, as Max Weber presents it in his famous “Politics as Vocation” lecture, rests in the impossible need to balance the competing demands of moral and practical competence.

At that time, Weber’s analysis seemed especially relevant because the campaign strategies of the candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination mapped onto it so neatly: the candidate who stressed practical competence (Clinton) versus the candidate who promised moral competence (Sanders). This is not and was not to say that Clinton was the “practical, not moral” choice while Sanders was the “moral, not practical” choice, but that the campaigns and their advocates were happy to line up that way.

The distinction remains relevant now as the same “uneasy allies” need to make common cause in light of an election result that none of us feel good about. It finds current salience in our differing responses to how to approach those who voted Trump, and/or abstained from voting altogether. I am thinking in particular of those in States like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and the elected representatives — especially Republicans — who have made clear their lack of support for Trump, or even their opposition to him. It seems to me that we again find members of the left/center-left/center coalition returning with whatever degree of consciousness to the moral/practical competence distinction. This time around, however, it seems as though many who supported the Sanders/Warren wing are joining those Senators in preaching “being practical,” while those more firmly in Clinton’s camp refuse compromise on moral grounds. Specifically, we find those who were wholeheartedly supportive of Clinton more insistent on “giving no quarter” to the newly empowered Republicans, while Sanders and Warren seem to be emphasizing advocacy “outreach” to the “Reagan Democrats” and to the newly empowered Republicans to whom the constituency has effectively handed all three branches of government; effectively in the sense that, once installed, the new Senate will surely confirm the nominees of the new President to the Supreme Court, and there’s no reason to suspect that the policies of the Republican party won’t have the balance of power on the Court. It is, if nothing else, an interesting reversal if my immediate circles are any indication of the broader conversation on the left/center-left/left coalition.

In this respect, it seems to me the point is simple: the center/center-left/left coalition lost this election and needs to respond in some practical way, whatever moral assessment we might have of our fellow citizens. Whether people voted for a candidate many find morally abhorrent (even disqualified from candidacy let alone office) or didn’t vote at all, the fact is the election result is binding and we need to think, at the same time and starting now, about what to do in loyal opposition and how to approach the elections in 2018 and 2020. And insofar as we need to win those elections, I think Warren and Sanders are right that we need to return to those constituencies, very much including those who cast their vote for Johnson and Toomey, as well as for Trump. Our coalition cannot win without the “Reagan Democrats.” We can mistrust one another. We can notice that we don’t have 90-plus per cent ideological overlap, but if we lost to candidates up and down the ballot in these States who are not the best candidates in the history of the world, there is no reason to think that we won’t lose again if we don’t cooperate with those who voted in ways that seem to go against their interests as well as ours.

This brings us to the second of the two post-election themes I hoped to say something about in my post last week. Some, perhaps many, members of this coalition to which I imagine myself belonging will reply that in fact we did not lose this election. The fact that Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote will be adduced to this effect and, regardless of what that does and does not mean in terms of a democratic mandate and the moral high ground, these voices will say that the lesson we should learn from 2016 is that the “Obama coalition” is the blueprint to stick with. They will say that what went wrong this time around was failing to sufficiently turn out key constituencies within that coalition: principally voters aged 18-29 and African-American voters. For those who hold this view, there are two major lessons of this election: (1) the Electoral College is outdated and anti-democratic and needs to be left in the dustbin of history; and (2) the focus going forward should be on increasing participation among the groups that the electoral strategy of 2016 already targeted, rather than on reaching out to the “white working class” which, for proponents of this view, is argued doesn’t exist or is “out of reach” for our coalition, for reasons either ideological or characterological.

My intuition is that both of these points is mistaken, but I acknowledge that it is early days, and we must all be modest in making our appraisals. Allow me, though, to conclude with the replies to these two claims that strike me as most compelling. With respect to the Electoral College, I believe a further discussion of its ills and the possibilities for reform seems in order. For the moment, however, I believe we have no better alternative. After all, the College is the solution to a real problem of federalism: namely, to preserve a truly federal Republic that maintains some degree of state sovereignty, the votes of larger States count more than smaller States in the national Presidential election. This is because the holder of the Presidency must be respected as the legitimate executive in every county across the territorial expanse of these United States. The only alternative I believe is to abolish either the Presidency or sovereignty of States. To disband the College without any other constitutional reform will only exacerbate existing tensions and make all the more serious calls for secession of various kinds. I would support more drastic reform if it were on the table — like abandoning an independent executive altogether, drawing the Head of Government from the ruling party in the House — but keeping everything like it is with simply disbanding the College seems to me neither just nor efficacious. Let’s better spend our time pressuring Senators to filibuster certain appointments of the current President-elect than attempt to undo the flawed instrument that made him President-elect.

But the deeper problem for America, not just for the electoral coalition I imagine myself part of, is one that was foreseen already at the founding. Namely, the executive requires some independent legitimation mechanism as long as people identify as “North Dakotans” or “Kansans” or “New Hampshirites” as well as Americans. One person/one vote for a President of a federal Republic is begging for people to say “that’s not my President,” and then look around and see that 60-plus per cent of the people around them didn’t vote for the President. Worse yet, look at States with “bright red” rural counties and “bright blue” cities: with direct democratic election of the President, you are inviting people to feel even more resentment of their nearest cities, further deepening the cultural divide. There’s nothing particularly admirable about indirect representation, and it feels uncomfortable to think of endorsing an obviously anti-majoritarian (anti-democratic if you like) measure like the Electoral College. But let’s re-read The Federalist and see if we don’t think Hamilton and Madison had a point.

2 thoughts on “Moral and Political Competence, Redux

  1. This is interesting and illuminating. I am on the fence about the Electoral College. The best argument for abolishing it, in my opinion, is to get people in the states that always go blue (or red) off of the couch and get people campaigning across the country and not just in a few states. As far as the case for resentment against cities or coastal areas, places that go blue, I am not for treating it with kid gloves. The resentment of the white working class did not just bubble to the surface; it was manipulated and played on in the crudest of ways by a huckster. Their resentment is not about to get any less virulent when Trump delivers nothing. As for continuing to challenge the results of this election, it may only be good politics for Democrats to fight but there is no credible evidence of any tampering with voting machines and without this evidence, we won’t win in court. My early thoughts, too.

    1. Thanks for the reply. Indeed, events move very quickly in the transition period, and with such massive shift in the alignment of the executive and legislative branches, there is so much to resist–when things go “the wrong way”–that is hard to know where to begin. It seems to me though, however, that there is a fundamental choice facing the Democrats and those who generally support them in electoral politics: either to continue with the path of the DLC and the DNC over the past generation (which will entail targeting “new economy” communities inland plus the big coastal cities), or to break from that path and pursue policies that speak to inland communities that have not thrived in the new economy but do have a basis for solidarity with those members of the Democrat coalition who are mobilized around social and economic justice issues. I can see arguments for pursuing either strategy, but you cannot pursue both consistently, and people need to get organized for the next round on the electoral carousel.

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